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Suggestion of interstate bypassing Tucson draws concerns

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TUCSON – Robin Clark says Avra Valley’s clean air, dark skies and abundant wildlife make the area northwest of Tucson a special place to live.

“It’s one of the last places you can go in Tucson to see what the desert used to look like,” she said.

Last week, those concerns drew Clark to an Arizona Department of Transportation hearing on Interstate 11, a proposed commerce and trade route from Las Vegas through northern Arizona and the Phoenix area to a border crossing with Mexico.

While the route hasn’t been established, a Pima County study that in July suggested bypassing Tucson through Avra Valley prompted Clark to launch an online petition against that idea. The petition now has been signed by nearly 700 people.

Russell Lowes, energy chairman for the Sierra Club Rincon Group, said putting an I-11 bypass west of the Tucson Mountains would lead to urban sprawl next to Saguaro National Park.

“It would create new areas of population, destroying wild areas that don’t need to be developed at this point,” he said.

Lowes and Clark said they aren’t opposed to the goals behind I-11 but contend they can be accomplished by expanding I-10 and I-19 through Tucson.

Clark said that in addition to creating air, light and noise pollution in her neighborhood, an interstate through Avra Valley would ruin views from the nearby Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

“I don’t think residents and visitors would be too happy if they knew that if they stood at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and looked west, instead of seeing the beautiful and open Avra Valley they saw an interstate freeway in the view,” she said.

Studying broad corridors as wide as 50 miles, ADOT hasn’t identified specific routes for any part of the project but has eliminated corridors near Yuma and Douglas. The current study is scheduled to be completed next year.

The feasibility of specific routes, including those in the Tucson region, will be determined by studies that have yet to be commissioned, ADOT spokeswoman Laura Douglas said.

“We’ll get more specific as we go along,” she said. “What we hope to have at the end of this study is recommended alternatives, which are still options at this point. We won’t have a specific line drawn on a map at the end of this study.”

In July, a study by the Pima County Department of Transportation suggested a route through Avra Valley and connecting with I-19 south of Tucson. In a letter describing the proposal, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry pointed to regional planning by the Pima Association of Governments estimating that congestion on I-10 and I-19 will be categorized as “severe” or “extremely severe” by 2040.

Joe Snell, president and CEO of Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities Inc., or TREO, called expanding freeway capacity from Phoenix through Nogales critical to the region’s economy.

“That interstate will move goods and services from Mexico,” Snell said. “It allows Tucson to really play as an inter-modal facility, to further transfer those goods whether they be by rail, by truck or by air cargo to different places in the United States.”

Snell said that products from Mexico will come to the U.S. through California or Texas if capacity isn’t expanded here.

“Companies that were doing business in China, India are moving manufacturing much closer to the United States,” he said. “It’s the new economic reality.”